'A Good Provider' Argues Migration Can Be Salvation

Aug 20, 2019
Originally published on August 20, 2019 7:10 pm

In 1987, reporter Jason DeParle went to sleep on the floor of a shanty in Manila for the first time. He had come to the Philippines to find out more about poverty in the developing world, and when he got there, he asked a nun with connections in a slum to help him find a family to take him in. "She walked me through the squatter camp and auctioned me off on the spot," he says. "I'm not sure who was more frightened, Tita, the woman I moved in with, or me."

DeParle would spend several months sleeping on Tita and Emet Comodas' floor, and he would spend the next 32 years following their family as they spread out around the world for work and a future outside the slums.

His new book is called A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves and is the story of global migration in the 21st century, as seen through the eyes of Tita, Emet and their daughter Rosalie. She was a shy 15-year-old schoolgirl when DeParle first met her, "who you wouldn't have guessed would be the teenager in the slum with the driving ambition to get out," he says. "What really leapt out to me about her high school record wasn't her grades but her attendance. In four years of poverty and actual revolution in the Philippines she never missed a day of school. ... She's now a 48-year-old nurse and a mother of three living in a suburb of Houston and working in a Texas hospital."


Interview Highlights

On his original focus on slum life

Migration was the last thing on my mind when I moved in with the family. I was interested in slum life — migration turned out to be how the family survived. Tita's husband, Rosalie's father, Emet, was a guest worker in Saudi Arabia, cleaning pools at a Saudi air base for two years at a time when the mom was home raising the kids on the money he sent back. All five of their children grew up to become overseas workers like the father. So their generation lived the rise of global migration.

On reconciling the dangers of overseas work with the necessity of the income

I think every Filipino is aware of the risks they take in going overseas. You can't escape it in the Manila papers — some half [of] the headlines read like gold rush ads about remittance tallies setting new records, and half read like human rights complaints. You know, "We slept with dogs; we were raped; we had no food." I think the fact that so many people are willing to leave their families and take such risks and be apart for such a length of time is just another measure of their poverty and desperation.

On why immigration is the defining story of the 21st century

I think the lightbulb moment for me was when I discovered that remittances — the sums that migrants send home — were three times the world's foreign aid budgets combined. - Jason DeParle

I think the lightbulb moment for me was when I discovered that remittances — the sums that migrants send home — were three times the world's foreign aid budgets combined. Conservatives like to say poor people need to do more to help themselves. Migrants do. And after learning that, I started reading the headlines, I think, with a different eye and often saw that the story behind the story was a migration story. Whether it's global warming, whether it's terrorism, whether it's voting patterns in the United States. More and more the news seemed to me that it had a hidden migration element. I got a little obsessive about it, began to see migration everywhere — in culture, in music, in food, in art, in politics.

On how Rosalie's children assimilated once they came to America

Yeah — if you doubt the powers of American assimilation, try to keep American culture from a teenager. Rosalie, when [her] kids first got here, was so worried about preserving their what she called Filipino value, she wanted them to watch Filipino TV, she wanted them to keep speaking Tagalog, and she just couldn't keep American society out — it was in their pockets with their phones, it was in their schools, it was everywhere.

On whether Rosalie's experience in America has changed under Trump

I don't think we know the answer to that yet. I think having a president who so openly speaks of immigrants in such derogatory terms is a new experience. I don't think we know the long-term effects it's going to have on immigrant communities and how they adapt and adjust to the U.S. Because Rosalie is here legally as a permanent resident, because she's educated, because she has a job, her kids are thriving, there hasn't been any immediate impact. Whether there's gonna be a long-term impact on all immigrants, I think, is an open question.

This story was edited for radio by Jolie Myers, produced by Kat Lonsdorf and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In 1987, reporter Jason DeParle went to sleep on the floor of a shanty in Manila for the first time. He came to the Philippines to find out more about poverty in the developing world. When he got there, he asked a nun with connections in a slum to help him find a family to take him in.

JASON DEPARLE: She walked me through the squatter camp and auctioned me off on the spot. I'm not sure who was more frightened, Tita, the woman I moved in with, or me.

KELLY: DeParle would spend several months sleeping on the floor of Tita and Emet Comodas' and he would spend the next 32 years following their family as they spread out around the world for work and a future outside the slums. My co-host, Ari Shapiro, recently sat down with Jason DeParle to talk about his new book based on that reporting.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The book is called "A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves," and it's the story of global migration in the 21st century through the eyes of Tita, Emet and their middle daughter, Rosalie.

DEPARLE: She was a shy, 15-year-old schoolgirl who you wouldn't have guessed would be the teenager in the slum with a driving ambition to get out. She was very religious. She didn't have any particular academic promise. She was a C student. What really leapt out to me about her high school record wasn't her grades but her attendance. In four years of poverty and actual revolution in the Philippines, she never missed a day of school.

SHAPIRO: And who is Rosalie today?

DEPARLE: She's now a 48-year-old nurse and a mother of three living in a suburb of Houston and working in a Texas hospital.

SHAPIRO: When you moved in with that family in the Philippines, global migration was not the force that it is today.

DEPARLE: Migration was the last thing on my mind when I moved in with the family. I was interested in slum life.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

DEPARLE: Migration turned out to be how the family survived. Tita's husband, Rosalie's father, Emet, was a guest worker in Saudi Arabia cleaning pools at a Saudi air base for two years at a time and the mom was home raising the kids on the money he sent back. All five of their children grew up to become overseas workers like the father. So their generation lived the rise of global migration.

SHAPIRO: Will you read a paragraph from - this is describing the first time that the patriarch of the family, Emet, starts sending money home from Saudi Arabia. This is in the early 1980s.

DEPARLE: (Reading) The first time Emet sent money, Tita cried. In Manila, he made about $50 a month; in Saudi, $500, plus his moonlighting job. Tita stopped running out of fish and rice. She bought extra school uniforms so she didn't have to wash every day. She bought a closet to hang them in. After years of toothaches, she had seven teeth pulled and treated herself to dentures. She bought a fan to stir the stagnant air and a television after the neighbors complained that the kids watch theirs through the window. Rosalie loved television, but the ultimate luxury was the family's first bed. I was ecstatic that we could lay on something soft.

SHAPIRO: The specificity of the transformation is just incredible. It's clear that working overseas is a vital lifeline for millions of families. And it's also clear that these overseas workers are often abused, overworked. If they get injured on the job, they might be just discarded. How do you reconcile those two things?

DEPARLE: I think every Filipino is aware of the risks they take in going overseas. You can't escape it in the Manila papers. Half the headlines read like gold rush ads, you know, about remittance tallies setting new records and half read like human rights complaints. You know, we slept with dogs. We were raped. We had no food. I think the fact that so many people are willing to leave their families and take such risks and be apart for such a length of time is just another measure of their poverty and desperation.

SHAPIRO: But on the whole, I don't know whether to think of this as a force for good or a force that lets people take advantage of disadvantaged human beings.

DEPARLE: You know, I don't think the word is or.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

DEPARLE: And.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. This book is not just about this family, and it's not just about the Philippines. You write that immigration is the defining story of the 21st century. And I want to put you on that because I think some people would say the global war on terror is the defining story of the 21st century or the global recession or technology and connectivity. What makes you say that immigration is the story of the century?

DEPARLE: I think the lightbulb moment for me was when I discovered the remittances. The sums that migrants send home were three times the world's foreign aid budgets combined. Conservatives like to say poor people need to do more to help themselves. Migrants do. And after learning that, I started reading the headlines I think with a different eye and often saw that the story behind the story was a migration story. Whether it's global warming, whether it's terrorism, whether it's voting patterns in the United States, more and more the news seemed to me that it had a hidden migration element. I got a little obsessive about it, began to see migration everywhere, in culture, in music, in food, in art, in politics.

SHAPIRO: OK. So your main character, Rosalie, works in the United Arab Emirates as a nurse for seven years before she comes to the U.S. How does her family's experience in the U.S. differ from other countries where people that you followed have been guest workers?

DEPARLE: Well, she could come permanently, and she could bring her kids. So Abu Dhabi is a guest worker state. You can never get citizenship there. You can never get the permanent residency. You're always...

SHAPIRO: Kids born there are not citizens.

DEPARLE: No, no. You're always there as a guest of the government. And when you're 60, you're expected to leave. I think the permanence of it was central to what attracted her to it. She did come here and become American. She could never become Emirati.

SHAPIRO: And indeed Rosalie's children now blend in with all of the other multicultural, multicolored American kids in Texas.

DEPARLE: Yeah. If you doubt the powers of American assimilation, try to keep American culture from a teenager. That just - Rosalie, when the kids first got here, was so worried about preserving their, what she called, Filipino values. She wanted them to watch Filipino TV. She wanted them to keep speaking Tagalog. And she just couldn't keep American society out. It just - it was in their pockets with their phones. It was in their schools. It was everywhere.

SHAPIRO: Rosalie and her family came to the U.S. during the Obama administration. And your story includes their experience in the U.S. during the Trump administration. With immigration restrictions and vilification of immigrants being such a central part of the Trump agenda, do you think their experience in this country has changed as a result of who's in the White House?

DEPARLE: I don't think we know the answer to that yet. I think having a president who so openly speaks of immigrants in such derogatory terms is a new experience. I don't think we know the long-term effects it's going to have on immigrant communities and how they adapt and adjust to the U.S. Because Rosalie is here legally as a permanent resident, because she's educated, because she has a job, her kids are thriving, there hasn't been any immediate impact. Whether there's going to be a long-term impact on all immigrants I think is an open question.

SHAPIRO: Jason DeParle is a reporter for The New York Times and his new book is called "A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves: One Family And Migration In The 21St Century." Great to talk to you.

DEPARLE: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: As Jason was leaving, he mentioned that there was one other paragraph from the book that he'd like to read, something he felt captured a way of looking at immigration that some people miss. Here it is.

DEPARLE: (Reading) Rosalie's escape from the slums is a minor miracle. Migration was her vehicle of salvation. It delivered her from the living conditions of the 19th century. It respected her talent, rewarded her sweat and enlarged her capacity for giving. It made her life deeper, fuller and more filled with hope. It's great that migration helped her help others, but it's also great that it helped her help herself. That her quest ended in Texas is something for Americans to cheer. It's good for your country to be the place that people go to make dreams come true. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.